And with that, the founders of Society Hill Studios were on their own. Breaking ties amicably with their former employer—a Philadelphia-based outfit producing a high volume of die-cut wedding videos—Cristina Valdivieso, Jon Connor, and Amy Reese have moved on just fine.
After introducing themselves to the crowd at Re:Frame Austin, Cristina and Jon, along with partner Amy Reese (who joined them later at in[focus]) now seem to pop up everywhere with the industry's inner circle. But how did these Young Turks manage to crash this party, seemingly overnight, and set themselves on the road to becoming one of the go-to studios in Philadelphia for couples wanting a high-end, artistic wedding film?
It was a special shared aversion they had to wedding videos-a vow never to shoot them even-that helped bring Jon and Cristina together. A fresh-out-of-high-school student at the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 1999, Jon's pursuit of a digital filmmaking and video production degree led him to produce his first wedding video, which he shot on S-VHS and edited on an A/B-roll system. His remuneration for the video was roughly equal to what you can find between your couch cushions, and the final product was worth little more than that, he felt. "They got a wedding video, and I got a headache," he says.
He vowed never to do it again.
That decision led Jon down a professional path that included the unenviable tasks of selling used cars, managing a mobile phone store, reading meters, and telling jokes on stage, all the while searching for a way to make video production a viable full-time venture.
Meanwhile, in 2006, Jon met Cristina, a photography assistant at the aforementioned wedding video company and student in psychology and photography at the Community College of Philadelphia (she would later continue her studies at Temple University). Cristina's photography program required a class in video production. To her, a class in statistics would have been met with less resistance. "Looking back," she says, "I'm not sure if I was set in my ways or if the fact that my sister was fresh out of NYU film school intimidated me."
For the course, she settled on producing a documentary about the Philadelphia comedy scene, of which Jon was a part. Working on it together, Cristina and Jon discovered that their thoughts on shot composition and editing were strikingly similar. After the documentary wrapped up, they didn't want to stop. "I loved every minute of it," Cristina says of the experience. She became a quick video convert. "With photography, all you have is your image. But being able to use motion and sound to tell a story inspired me, and still does."
Riding on that momentum, the duo went on to produce freelance documentaries, event videos, and promos for local artists and fighters, seeking always to experience new genres of filmmaking.
Luckily, Jon soon found a day job producing and editing video. Unfortunately, it was for the same template-driven company Cristina worked for, now in the additional capacity as video shooter for the 150-plus wedding videos produced yearly there.
But it wasn't all bad. They developed a strong friendship with the company's veteran sales consultant who also has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Amy Reese, who later would prove to be a vital asset to their team.
In a game-changing—no, life-changing—decision, Jon and Cristina saved up and sent themselves to Re:Frame Austin. When all the wedding video you've seen up until then, and all that you're allowed to produce, is the video equivalent of Wonder Bread, Re:Frame is quite a magical place to be.
Before going, they approached the workshop as if they were preparing for the LSAT. They meticulously researched all the presenters and viewed their work online, awe-struck. "Honestly, we had never seen work like that before," Cristina recalls.
In Austin, Re:Frame's workshops filled them with ideas, but it was in the cozier, after-hours conversations with other attendees that inspired them the most, as they sat up trading stories. On the last day, Cristina's heart-to-heart with Kristen* and Kristen Turick brought her to tears, nearly. "I'm not sure why I wanted to cry, but I was so relieved to finally know what I wanted to do. I was ready
to move on and put my heart into my work."
Meanwhile, a "bromance" was brewing between Jon and U.K. DP extraordinaire and notorious time-lapse addict Philip Bloom. His work and his passion, made all the more evident by his constant companion-his camera-stood out. Jon and Cristina both shared an unexpected chemistry with him, and they have kept in close contact, often collaborating on projects.
For Jon, Re:Frame meant reneging on his vow. Now he was seeing wedding videos for what they could be: wedding films. Re:Frame, he says, "showed me that it didn't have to be everyone's perception of ‘wedding videos.' I could still apply all the creative aspirations I had as a filmmaker, but in a different way. There is a story to be told: the story of their lives, how they met, and their families."
Their lives changed. They returned to Philadelphia and cut ties with their employer in order to grow as artists, but not before making a beeline to Amy, who was on board with their plan 100%. To be clear, it wasn't that their employer had done anything to make the three of them want to leave.
Offering an explanation that brings to mind a teary-eyed conversation at a well-attended restaurant, Jon says, "It had very little to do with them. It was about us, and what we wanted. They just didn't have the luxury of bringing out multiple shooters and doing some of the creative things we wanted to do."
Jenni and Jason ~ Meredith Manor from Society Hill Studios on Vimeo.
After making the break official, the next item of business was acquiring a Canon 5D Mark II and learning absolutely everything about it. Only they struggled to find support to help them master it and their complementary camera, the EOS 7D, and wondered if other DSLR ingénues were having similar difficulties.
Inspired by Bloom's always giving back to the industry, Jon wanted to pay something forward himself, by creating a resource for others to go to for education and inspiration. He started Canon Filmmakers (www.canonfilmmakers.com) as a way to blog about the learning process, à la Julie & Julia, and share helpful links, tutorials, and cool videos. The website has developed a strong following and now includes contributions from Cristina as well as Athens, Ga., filmmaker Joseph Stunzi. "Stay tuned for some cool surprises around the corner," Jon says.
Their newest and most ambitious venture yet, Canon Filmmakers Live, a one-day event for DSLR Filmmakers that promises "DSLR Filmmaking + Networking + More" and features marquee attractions Bloom, Dave Williams, and Anthony Quintano, is happening July 11 at Philadelphia's World Cafe.
With the 5D mastered and a major gig quickly approaching, they knew they needed a name. "The name came out of necessity," Cristina explains. "We started to get a lot of work and we knew we needed a brand." When Jon suggested Society Hill, the name of the neighborhood where their apartment was located in downtown Philly, "it made total sense."
Before long, Amy's business acumen and talent for promoting, despite the group's piggy-bank-sized advertising budget, had them growing at a steady, if not dizzying, clip. "After our first same-day edit at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, things really started to take off," Cristina says. They knew they were doing something right when, at Soiree in the City, a high-end bridal show, attendees were quick to correct themselves when accidentally referring to Society Hill's work as "video." "It's one thing to hear your peers refer to your work as a film, but for a potential client, who has no idea who you are, to refer to your work as a film was just amazing."
Going forward, Jon sees the company continuing to push for the long-overdue respect the industry deserves by competing with itself and seeking out new inspirations. "The biggest source of inspiration though is the couples," he admits.
Producing films they are proud of is Jon and Cristina's No. 1 priority on their agenda for now. But they do have some other irons in the fire. Namely, they would like to branch out beyond Philadelphia at some point-beyond weddings too. They recently partnered up with good friend and photographer Jordan Hayman to launch Third Frame Media (www.thirdframemedia.com), a commercial film and photography company.
So things really did work out for the best, after all. That's what usually happens when you follow your heart, something Cristina believes everyone should do a little more of. It was hearing her father talk about the one passion, photography, he had to give up in order to support his family that struck a chord with her growing up. "Early on he taught me that the key to happiness and success is to follow your heart," she says. From the looks of things, Society Hill has unlocked that door.
Elizabeth Avery Merfeld (www.lizmerfeld.com) is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.